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Fast Track

Senate Approves New Indecency Legislation

Fines could skyrocket

By Allison Romano and John Eggerton

The Senate approved indecency legislation late last Thursday that would increase fines tenfold—to $325,000 per violation from the current $32,500 maximum.

The Senate bill was introduced by Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) and passed by a unanimous consent vote. “It’s time that broadcast-indecency fines represent a real economic penalty and not just a slap on the wrist,” Brownback said in a statement.

The Senate measure must now be reconciled with a House bill, which would boost indecency fines to a maximum of $500,000 per incident.

The Senate bill, however, is free of other elements in the House bill—fining performers, putting TV station licenses in play—that make that bill problematic. The Senate bill does not define indecent material nor explain how the fines are assessed, nor give the FCC new power to revoke licenses.

Still, the Senate measure is sure to roil local broadcasters and networks. For example, the FCC recently issued a $3 million fine for an infraction in CBSWithout a Trace. Under the Senate proposal, that fine would jump to more than $30 million.

“This is going to have an intimidating effect, particularly on small broadcasters,” says Washington attorney John Crigler of Garvey, Schubert and Barer. “A single fine may be their operating budget for an entire year.”

The swift passage in the Senate definitely surprised some Washington insiders. The majority leader can call for approval by unanimous consent and, if no senator opposes it, the bill is considered passed, though it must go through the formality of being brought up on the floor, often in the rapid wrap-up of business at the end of the day’s session.

A single senator opposing the bill could have stymied legislation, but no one protested.

Granite Suing WB, CBS

Complaint involves sales of WB stations

By Allison Romano

One day before The CW revealed its inaugural upfront pitch to advertisers, station owner Granite Broadcasting filed a lawsuit against the network’s parent companies that could inspire other former WB and UPN affiliates to take legal action.

Granite is suing The WB and CBS Corp., co-owners of The CW, for breach of contract and unspecified damages after seeing the sales of two of its WB stations fall through in the wake of the announced shutdowns. Neither station—WDWB Detroit and KBWB San Francisco—won The CW affiliation in their markets.

The Granite suit, filed May 18 in the Court of the Chancery in Delaware, alleges that The WB breached the affiliation agreements for WDWB and KBWB and negotiated in bad faith when the companies hammered out affiliation renewals last September.

Granite is the first company to take legal action over the termination of The WB and UPN. The two networks announced in January that they will shut down in September and merge into The CW. Early on, some UPN affiliates considered legal action, but they have yet to follow through.

“The WB breached its agreements, reneged on its promises and/or its representations turned out to be false,” the suit says, according to court documents. As a result, the stations’ value has been “significantly compromised,” it continues, leaving the stations “orphans in the television broadcast industry.”

Those extensions, Granite says, were key to its $180 million deal to sell the two stations. That deal, with AM Media, fell through after the WB and UPN announcements. Granite recently found a new buyer for the stations, but at a reduced price of $150 million.

In the lawsuit, Granite contends that the WB closure lessened the value of its WB stations and caused losses in revenue and other business opportunities.

The company is also seeking to recoup at least part of the $22.5 million Granite says it paid to extend KBWB’s affiliation.

When AM Media balked at its deal in February, it sent ripples across Granite. The company warned that it was running out of cash to service its debt and would have to walk away from a deal of its own to buy CBS affiliate WBNG Binghamton, N.Y. It is now proceeding with that acquisition.

WDWB has signed on as an affiliate for Fox’s MyNetworkTV, while KBWB will be an independent.

Senate Delays Telecom Markup

The Senate Commerce Committee is working on a revised draft of its telecom-reform bill and will push back a markup to June 20.

The committee is also adding a third hearing on the bill June 13; the first was held May 18, the second will be May 25.

The additional hearing is to give legislators a chance to review the changes, which could include a larger role for local governments in franchise negotiations under the new streamlined video-franchise system that is the centerpiece of the bill.—John Eggerton

New Net-Neutrality Bill Debuts

Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.), chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, has introduced a network-neutrality bill that he calls an effort to “preserve Internet freedom and competition.”

He first attempted to assert dual jurisdiction over the Senate telecom-reform bill that also deals with network neutrality. Sensenbrenner said that it was necessary to introduce a separate bill to “protect consumers and other Internet users from possible anti-competitive and discriminatory conduct by broadband providers.”

Echoing the phrasing of Sen. Byron Dorgan (R-N.D.) at a Senate hearing on the telecom bill earlier in the day, “Internet freedom” may be taking over from “network neutrality” as the label of choice for backers of specific prohibitions on network discrimination in the provision of Internet service.—John Eggerton

RTCA: No CNN Ambush on Stevens

Radio-Television Correspondents Association members are being asked not to use small, handheld digital cameras in a key Senate hallway while the association tries to negotiate with legislators over changes to rules that RTCA says are unclear.

After an investigation, the committee concluded last week that CNN reporter Joe Johns and a producer did not conduct an ambush interview when they used a handheld camera during an interview with Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) but that the rules governing coverage of the Hill are unclear, outdated and subject to interpretation.

Stevens’ office had filed a complaint with the RTCA after Johns interviewed Stevens May 9 for an unflattering story on “Alaska Pork.”—John Eggerton

CBS News Trumps ABC

Katie Couric won’t be a fixture on the CBS News anchor desk until September, but already the CBS Evening News is heating up in the ratings race.

For the first time in nearly five years, for the week of May 8, CBS Evening News attracted a larger audience than ABC’s World News Tonight in the weekly ratings race. Evening News averaged 7.39 million viewers, edging out World News Tonight’s 7.31 million viewers.

ABC, however, still has a slight advantage in the key news demographic, adults 25-54, posting a 2.1 rating to CBS’ 1.9.

NBC remains the leader in all of the categories, attracting a 2.2 rating in 25-54s, along with 8.41 million viewers.

With Bob Schieffer in the anchor chair and a new executive team at CBS News, Evening News has been steadily growing its ratings in recent months.

“I continue to stress with our team that, if you put on a better show day in and day out, our ratings will increase,” Sean McManus, president, CBS News and Sports, said in a statement.—Allion Romano

WNBC Debuts Webcasts, Podcasts For Specials

WNBC New York will launch Web- and podcasts for all of its upcoming specials. The station, one of a small group of affiliates extending its content into Web- and podcasts, began the initiative with daily reports from the Tribeca Film Festival from April 24 through May 3.

On May 22, the station will launch Web- and podcasts devoted to Asa Aarons’ “50 Ways To Save Gasoline,” a special segment that will run during its 11 p.m. newscast that night.

The WNBC effort is part of a larger initiative at the NBC Universal-owned stations to innovate their Web products. KNTV San Francisco, for example, recently created a special section on its Web site, including interactive maps and a timeline, to commemorate the anniversary of the devastating 1906 earthquake.—Anne Becker

Discovery Strikes iTunes Deal

Discovery Communications signed an iTunes deal that will make episodes from 12 shows from its suite of cable networks available on the Apple iTunes store for $1.99 per episode. The shows, from the Discovery Channel, TLC, Animal Planet, Travel Channel, Discovery Health Channel and Discovery Kids, are available immediately, along with free audio podcasts.

Discovery joins a growing list of broadcast and cable networks that are rushing to answer demand to dispatch their content onto various emerging digital platforms.        

Beginning last month, Discovery became the first TV network to provide video to Google Earth, Google’s free, satellite-imagery-based mapping product. The company will place ads on the site and can add pay downloads in the future.

Separately, Discovery will move its popular motorcycle series American Chopper from the Discovery Channel to its sister network TLC. Chopper has earned the Discovery Channel a healthy 2.1 million viewers with new episodes this year, but network executives have said they are looking to return Discovery’s programming to its roots in science and nature.

The motorcycle reality show, currently on Mondays at 10 p.m. on Discovery, has been on the network since 2003 and will move to TLC in December.—Anne Becker


Comments by Ross Greenburg of HBO Sports (Fast Track, 4/15, p. 22) were incorrectly attributed to Rick Bernstein of HBO Sports.